If you’re visiting Asheville, North Carolina for the first time, you’re in for a treat. The city is jampacked with things to do, see, and experience, from world-class nature reserve to vintage pinball arcades and premier shopping centers. The only problem you might find is choosing which of the excellent activities and attractions to focus on first. If you’re in need of a helping hand, check out our list of the 20 very best things to do in Asheville, NC.
20. Smith-McDowell House
Those who want to experience some first-class history during their trip shouldn’t miss a visit to the Smith-McDowell House. As Asheville’s first mansion and oldest surviving house, it offers a fascinating peek into the rich history of the city, providing visitors with the rare chance to experience what life was like in the 1900s. Exhibits change regularly, so check out the website for details before you visit.
19. Thomas Wolfe Memorial
If you’re at all curious about the rich and splendid nature of Asheville’s cultural and literary past, you’ll not want to miss a visit to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Located at 52 N Market Street in the Downtown Asheville Historic District, the memorial offers a unique insight into the life and career of celebrated local author, Thomas Wolfe. With a score of original artifacts and a range of fun, interactive activities for kids, it straddles the divide between the educational and the entertaining masterfully.
18. DuPont State Recreational Forest
As home to more than 10,000 acres of forest, trails, and waterfalls, the DuPont State Recreational Forest is the perfect place to indulge in a little outdoor appreciation. Whether you take a horseback ride along the shore of the 99-acre Lake Julia, a mountain bike ride over Cedar Rock Mountain, or enjoy the serenity of the Triple Falls waterfall, you can’t fail but be overawed by the scale of majestic beauty on offer.
17. The Grove Arcade Public Market
The historic Grove Arcade Public Market is a must-visit for anyone who can’t resist a little retail therapy on their vacation. Its seemingly endless range of dining and recreational venues offers hours of entertainment, while the eclectic range of shops selling everything from locally crafted arts to American and Italian designer clothing guarantees plenty of opportunities to splash your cash. While you’re there, don’t miss a visit to the Makers Marker on the Battery Park end of the Arcade: with its countless stores selling everything from artisanal honey and local farm products to handmade jewelry, paintings, clothing, soap, and musical instruments, it’s the perfect place to pick up a few reminders of your trip.
16. Asheville Pinball Museum
Kids, teenagers, and grownups alike can’t fail to be captivated by the hugely entertaining Asheville Pinball Museum. With a massive selection of over 80 pinball machines and classic video games on offer (including the ever-popular Pac Man, Mrs. Pac Man, Galaga, Tron, and Frogger), it guarantees hours of fun and enjoyment. For those with money to burn, there’s even the chance to buy a machine to take home as a reminder of your visit.
15. Western North Carolina Nature Center
If you want to see some of the many different species of animal that call North Carolina home, you’ve got two choices. You can either spend hours trekking around the forests in the hope of catching a fleeting glimpse, or you can save yourself the time, the energy, and the potential disappointment by visiting the Western North Carolina Nature Center. Home to everything from wolves and owls, to sheep and otters, it’s a great place to get up close and personal with the sixty-plus types of animals (not to mention hundreds of plant species) native to the Southern Appalachians region. As well as giving visitors a chance to watch the animals in their natural habitats, the center offers a great selection of events and activities, including a behind-the-scenes tour, Critter Time for Tykes and Tots, and an after-hours Brews & Bear party.
14. Drum Circle
If you’re looking for an unusual way to fill your Friday night, why not spend it at the Asheville Drum Circle? The weekly ritual brings hundreds of locals and tourists to the outdoor amphitheater of downtown's Pritchard Park to join together in an evening of music, dance, and friendship. If you’re an amateur drummer yourself, feel free to bring your own accompaniment. Otherwise, simply join the crowds of enthralled onlookers to soak up the sights and sounds of the thrilling experience.
13. No Taste Like Home
Asheville is a foodie’s delight. With everything from award-winning creameries (more on which coming up) to wild ’n’ wacky pizzerias cum breweries, it’s no place for the diet conscious. For those who prefer to work for their lunch, a No Taste Like Home experience comes highly recommended. The three-hour excursion through the woodlands surrounding the city gives would-be survivalists the chance to pick the ingredients for their lunch under the watchful eye (and expert curation) of a local guide. Once your basket’s full, recover to a local restaurant where a team of skilled chefs will turn your collection of edibles into a world-class meal.
12. Looking Glass Creamery
Take a 15 minutes’ drive from Asheville and you’ll find the Looking Glass Creamery, a celebrated luncheon spot and home to some of the best cheeses you’ll find in North Carolina. Jen and Andy Perkins have been churning out a selection of handcrafted, award-winning cheeses since 2009, and their dedication has clearly paid off. The creamery garden is a fabulous place to enjoy a selection of local delicacies, pickles, homemade bread, and of, course, some truly epic Fromage.
11. Looking Glass Falls
According to local legend, the Looking Glass Falls was named after a rock which, when studded with frozen water, looks like a looking glass. Today, the waterfall is one of North Carolina’s most popular natural attractions. Located around an hour’s drive from the center of Asheville, it makes a great spot to relax away from the city and enjoy the beauty of nature.
10. The Basilica of Saint Lawrence
After you’ve viewed the attractions at Asheville’s oldest surviving house (Smith-McDowell House, lest you forget), take a trip to the city’s oldest church and major attraction, The Basilica of Saint Lawrence. The architectural treasure was completed in 1909 and stands as a testament to the artistry and craftsmanship of the period. Free tours are available, with the option to take either the self-guided or guided option. Don’t miss a visit to the charming little gift shop for a souvenir on your way out.
9. River Arts District
Consisting of 22 industrial and historical buildings (including a tannery and a cotton mill), the River Arts District is home to over 200 artists who’ve come to rely on the free-spirited, creative atmosphere of the area to create and sell their goods. Browse the warehouses for a wide selection of textiles, ceramics, paintings, photography, and jewelry, along with the unique opportunity to chat with the artists at work.
8. Folk Art Center
As home to some of the best traditional and contemporary crafts you’ll find anywhere in Southern Appalachia, the Folk Art Center at milepost 382 off the Blue Ridge Parkway is more than worth a visit. If a site can attract over 250,000 visitors annually, you know it’s something special, which it more than proves within just a few minutes of entering. As well as the daily craft demonstrations, bookstore, parkway information desk, library, and three galleries devoted to the artists and craftsmen of Appalachia, the site plays host to regular special events centered around the different materials used in the construction of traditional crafts. Check out the website for details of upcoming events.
Want to know which city has more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the United States? You guessed it… for those who appreciate a cold, refreshing glass of ale, Asheville is paradise on earth. With over 100 local beers to sample and a score of superb breweries to sample them in, you’d be remiss not to dedicate at least a few hours of your time to Asheville’s most popular beverage. Key milestones in the brewery trail to watch out for include the Wicked Weed Brewing (don’t miss its award-winning “sour and funky’ beer), local favorite Greenmansion, and the charmingly eclectic Asheville Brewing Company.
6. North Carolina Arboretum
Amateur botanists won’t want to skip the North Carolina Arboretum. The 65-acre garden is a celebration of all things horticultural, playing host to everything from a National Native Azalea Collection and a Bonsai Exhibition Garden to a Heritage Garden dedicated to Southern Appalachian horticulture. For those like to work up a sweat as they appreciate the delights of nature, there are over 10 miles of hiking and biking trails. Kids, meanwhile, will find plenty to keep them entertained with the great range of interactive youth activities on offer.
5. Blue Ridge Parkway
There are not many places in the world that can boast a road as an attraction, but then again, few places offer a road quite so magnificent as the Blue Ridge Parkway. Littered with charming mountain towns, hiking and biking trails, gorgeous vistas, and, at milepost 384, a fascinating center offering a heap of information about the natural and cultural history of the area, as well as lots of handy advice on the best outdoor activities to be had, it’s a drive well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.
4. Appalachian Trail
You’re not obliged to walk the full course of the Appalachian Trail (which, given that it covers more than 2,190 miles and 14 states, probably comes as a bit of a relief). That said, it’d be remiss not to take in at least a few of those miles on your visit to Asheville. Although past visitors have commented that parts of the trail are “challenging’, the peaks, views, and outcroppings are, by all accounts, more than worth the effort.
3. Pisgah National Forest
When the hustle and bustle of the city center gets too much to bear, retreat to the Pisgah National Forest, where you’ll find breathing space aplenty (not to mention some truly stunning scenery). Set over 500,000 acres of land and packed with trails, waterfalls, and numerous swimming and fishing holes, the forest makes a great day out for all the family. Outdoor fanatics will find enough activities to keep them busy for days on end, while the more sedate will find plenty of delightful spots to relax with a picnic. Although you’ll need a permit for camping, all other activities are free, making it the perfect place for those on a budget.
2. Asheville Urban Trail
For an unparalleled glimpse into the cultural and architectural delights of the city, take the 1.7-mile trek across the Asheville Urban Trail. Designed with the specific intent of showcasing the city’s rich past, the trail takes in 30 stops marked by a monument or significant figure from Asheville’s past. The trail, which starts at Pack Square before branching out into the downtown area, takes around 2 hours to complete, so don’t forget to bring some comfortable shoes (not to mention your camera).
1. Biltmore Estate
With its stunning architecture and beautiful gardens, the Biltmore Estate is unquestionably the jewel in Asheville’s crown. The history of the building (which, by the way, just so happens to be the US’s largest private home) dates all the way back to 1889, offering visitors a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past. Just as worthwhile as a tour of the house itself is a stroll through its surrounds: with over 8000 acres of gardens, 2.5 miles of walking paths, and a greenhouse that’s a riot of rare orchids and roses, it’s a real treat for visitors of all ages. Although admission is steep ($60 per person), the scale and quality of the site makes it one expense you’re unlikely to regret.
Written by Liz Flynn
Read more posts by Liz Flynn